Violence against children

Pianist James Rhodes calls for longer statute of limitations for child abuse

The British musician is leading the drive to push the Spanish government to deliver its promised law on crimes against minors

Pianist James Rhodes and Vicki Bernadet appear at a press conference against child abuse.
Pianist James Rhodes and Vicki Bernadet appear at a press conference against child abuse.Victor Lerena / EFE

British concert pianist James Rhodes could barely sleep before Friday’s press conference. He has spoken a lot about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, but thinking about how to retell his experience still keeps him up at night. For Rhodes, who was raped by a teacher when he was a child, the word “abuse” falls short. “The word is too soft. If I get a fine, that is abuse. But I can’t use the same word for a man who puts his penis inside a five-year-old boy.”

It took me 20 years to be able to speak about what they did to me

Concert pianist James Rhodes

In 2014, Rhodes published a chilling memoir called Instrumental, in which he recounts his teacher’s attacks, the indifference of his colleagues, and the destructive impact the abuse had on his existence. “Sometimes people make the mistake of believing everything is better once the abuse is over. But that’s not true,” he says.

In 2017, the pianist moved to Madrid, where he has since become one of the most visible faces of a collective that is demanding that the Spanish government urgently fulfill its promise to create a law to eradicate violence against children. Rhodes even wrote Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez a letter calling for reform.

“It took me 20 years to be able to speak about what they did to me,” he said on Friday at an emotional press conference, which brought the journalists in the room to applause.

Victims of child abuse often take years to talk about the crimes they endured. To address this, the collective, which includes children’s charities Save the Children and the Vicki Bernadet Foundation, wants the statute of limitations on child abuse to be extended as part of the new law.

One in five people has been sexually abused as a child

Currently in Spain, the statute of limitations for sexual crimes against children is counted from the moment the victim becomes an adult. According to the seriousness of the crime, the limit could be between five and 15 years after this point. In the most extreme case, the crime can be prosecuted when the victim is 33 years old. This means a victim cannot prosecute their abuser after this period.

“Sexual abuse is very serious but it is made even worse the moment you force us to keep such a long silence,” said Vicki Bernadet, another victim of child abuse.

One in five people have been sexually abused as a child, according to various studies. It is a crime committed overwhelmingly by relatives and people the victims trust. According to the report “Eyes that Don’t Want to See,” by Save the Children, the abuse lasts an average of four years. The report claims only 15% of the crimes are reported and of all cases that reach the legal system, seven out of 10 never reach trial.

Sometimes people make the mistake of believing everything is better once the abuse is over. But that’s not true Concert pianist James Rhodes

Save the Children wants the statute of limitations for crimes against personal freedom and sexual identity to start expiring when a victim is 50 years old. According to the charity’s estimations, most victims speak out about their abuse when they are over 35. The proposal would put Spain in line with other European countries such as France and Germany, which are considering extending the statute of limitations to 30 years after the victim becomes an adult. Other victims associations wants no statute of limitations, which is the case in the United Kingdom and some states in the United States.

On September 7, the Spanish Cabinet agreed to a bill to combat violence against children. The draft is expected to be sent to Congress in the second quarter of 2019, but Rhodes and the children’s associations want to push this to January instead.

Ending impunity

Miguel Ángel Hurtado, who was abused by a priest when he was 16, is leading a Spanish campaign on Change.org to put an end to the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children. The aim is to stop abusers from getting away with their crimes. In a recent case known as “Maristas,” one of the most serious instances of child abuse in Spain, a judge in Barcelona threw out 13 complaints of sexual violence against the gym teacher Joaquín Benítez because the statute of limitations had expired.

Spanish legal experts however want the focus to be on early intervention, when it is easier to collect proof and prosecute the culprits. “It’s about working at the moment, acting so that people are not terrified until they are 30,” says Mercedes García Arán, professor of criminal law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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